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How Millennials Can Make Strides In Public Perception Of HIV/AIDS

The date is June 5, 1981, the day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would publish a report that would shake the world.

The report noted a few cases of gay men with unusual lung infections, and other indications of failing immune systems in previously healthy individuals.

It marked the birth of human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS), a global epidemic that would go on to infect about 78 million people and kill 39 million.

In 1981, though, the virus was labeled “GRID” for gay-related immune disease, caused by the initial misunderstanding the virus was isolated to gay individuals.

Originally, HIV/AIDS was associated with the gay community and drug injection users, due to the high risk of transmission among these groups.

This impacted public health policy at the time of determining treatment protocols, and it forever shaped the public perception of the virus.

At the time, being HIV positive not only meant having to deal with the fear of suffering and impending death, but it also meant potentially losing your job, being denied medical care and even home eviction.

Many countries have enacted legislation to protect against this type of discrimination, but the remnants of this time are still visible. It was only in 2010 that the travel ban on HIV-infected individuals was finally lifted in the United States.

Although we may take for granted that we now know HIV transmission does not discriminate between individuals, the perception that acquiring the virus is the result of “bad” behavior still remains.

It’s important we acknowledge this stems from these early perceptions of how people viewed the communities of those first infected with this new virus.

In the United States, the 2010 rate of infection of HIV was five times greater among the prison population than people who were not incarcerated. Criminal behavior may correlate with infection rates, but it is in no way a causation.

In fact, higher rates of infection are likely correlated with incarceration rates.

In this population, you see individuals of lower socio-economic status and opportunity, and greater rates of people of ethnicity.

These high infection rates are a symptom of our failure as a society to provide effective virus awareness, prevention campaigns and treatment opportunity to these groups.

Whether it’s a mother who passes the virus on to her unborn child, or a person who’s infected through a contaminated needle used for drugs, our opinion of the person infected should not change.

And yet, there lingers a perception it’s a negative consequence, a deserved result from a decision assumed to have been made along the way.

This is important because the stigma surrounding the virus impacts how we talk about it as people, and how we manage it as a society. People remain embarrassed to ask their doctors to be tested.

It goes without saying it should never be embarrassing to be ill, but we all know how society continues to struggle with this concept.

HIV is no longer a death sentence. We have progressed far from where we were 30 years ago, in regards to treatment.

With standard antiretroviral therapy, a person can live a relatively healthy life while being HIV-positive, and even reduce the chance of the virus developing into AIDS (the more acute stage of the virus) at all.

HIV-positive individuals can even have sexual partners who, with consistent and correct precaution, will not become infected.

Developments in treatment mean that now, an adult in North America who tests positive and receives early and effective treatment can expect a relatively equal life expectancy as someone who does not have the virus.

But, people who aren’t tested can’t be treated. And if someone is embarrassed to ask his or her doctor about being tested, then we have a problem.

We’ve come a long way, but it’s time for our understanding and acceptance of HIV to catch up to the amazing accomplishments that have been made in the medical field.

It’s an illness, not a punishment.